College students have had a hard time during the pandemic with their campuses closed and having to switch to full-time remote learning. This has taken a toll on many people’s mental health and well-being. Campuses around the country are preparing to welcome back students and with a better sense for students’ needs in terms of mental health support. New results from surveys before and after the 2020-21 school year provide some insight into what they were going through.
"Mental health promotion and access to services and evidence-based programs are going to be more important than ever," said Bernadette Melnyk, vice president for health promotion, chief wellness officer and dean of the College of Nursing at Ohio State University (OSU), in a press release. "Two-thirds of students who are no longer in college are not in college due to a mental health issue."
Melnyk and colleagues conducted surveys twice among OSU students: once in August 2020 and again in April 2021. They found that 39 percent of students screened were positive for anxiety in the first survey, and that increased slightly to 42.6 percent the second time around.
They also found that screening for depression increased between the survey periods at about 24 percent in August to about 28 percent in April. There was the biggest increase for students who screened positive for burnout, with 40 percent of students increasing to 71 percent.
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The students employed various coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety, depression and burnout. The surveys found that some unhealthy coping mechanisms were being used more often later on in April 2021. This includes eating more unhealthy foods, use of alcohol and use of tobacco or vaping. The percentage of people using healthy coping mechanisms, like increasing physical activity, declined from the first to the second survey.
The survey also found that people seeing a mental health counselor rose from 13 to 22 percent during this time period.
Experts at OSU and Ohio State Wexner Medical Center have come together to expand resources for students. One of the goals is to integrate those resources into curricula and campus life.
"We would not send divers into a deep ocean without an oxygen tank," said Melnyk. 'How can we send our students throughout life without giving them the resiliency, cognitive-behavioral skills and coping mechanisms that we know are protective against mental health disorders and chronic disease?"
The new mental health commission is promoting a “Five to Thrive” mental health checklist for OSU students. According to the press release, these include:
- "Establish health habits that work for you: Schedule stress reduction, physical activity and healthy eating like you schedule classes and homework time."
- "Build resiliency and coping skills: Practice deep breathing, mindfulness, gratitude and flipping negative thoughts with positive ones."
- "Find local mental health support: Explore your school's resources and locate/connect with counseling services, a primary care provider and pharmacy."
- "Grow and maintain support systems: Get involved in campus life, meet new people and connect with positive people in your life."
- "Don’t wait to get help: Seek professional help immediately if your symptoms or emotions are affecting concentration or functioning."
Melnyk and collaborators hope that these new efforts will help support students as they prepare for a new school year.
"So as students are welcomed back to campus this fall, these five steps are so critically important to both fortify a foundation of mental resiliency and make self-care and mental well-being a priority," says Melnyk. "It's actually a strength to recognize when you need mental health help; it's not a weakness."
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